It's that time of year again... Chicago's premier punk rock festival is set to take place this weekend as Riot Fest kicks off Wednesday night with performances from nearly forty acts at various venues across the city over a span of five days.
Helmet singer, guitarist and founder Page Hamilton joined me on the phone on Tuesday in advance of the band's Friday night headlining slot at Double Door...
Doors open at 9PM on Friday, October 5th for Helmet's 9:30PM Double Door show featuring opening acts Bitter Wigs, Admiral of Black and Electric Hawk. Tickets are an absolute bargain at only $15 and are available via TicketFly.
Below are highlights from the interview I conducted with frontman Page Hamilton. For more from Page (including his thoughts on the state of rock music, touring as a member of David Bowie's backing band, Helmet's dates in 2006 as the opening act for Guns N' Roses and how he approaches the songrwiting process), check back next week for part two of this interview which will feature our full, twenty five minute discussion.
Q. Helmet is kind of known for it's various different lineups over the years. Who makes up the current touring band?
Page: The drummer is Kyle Stevensen who’s been with me since ‘06. He’s from Wisconsin. And on guitar, from Minneapolis, is Dan Beeman. And Dave Case plays bass. He’s from Long Island… so we’re kind of from all over the place.
Q. How would you say the different lineups have effected the music heading into each album?
Page: Well, I’ve always pretty much written the material and all the lyrics and music and stuff. So, it’s kind of mostly gonna sound like me, for better or worse. But you know, everybody that plays in the band is going to add something to it. It’s arrangement intensive music. And they play the arrangements the way they were written and the way we get it together in the studio. Obviously, every drummer has a different feel and different fills and stuff. Same with the bass player. Guitar players, for better or worse, are pretty much limited to kind of doubling what I do because I do all the noise and leads and stuff like that. They just play the rhythm parts because we have two guitars on the albums.
Its been nice, I think, just being kind of relaxed. The band, we have a very good working relationship now. We get along really well. We enjoy one another’s company. We’ve traveled a lot this year from Brazil and Chile to New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Europe and all over the U.S. This is our third and final tour for this record. So we’ve spent a lot of time together and you want to get along with people. That, for me, makes it nice. I like bringing material in to these guys...
Q. Writers and critics always seem to want to pigeonhole Helmet (there was the next Nirvana label, the metal label, etc.) but one of the things that I find interesting about your band is its ability to incorporate a lot of different styles. That's especially true on your latest album Seeing Eye Dog where there's everything from metal to a Beatles cover (not to mention the fact that you're a trained jazz guitarist). What's your typical process when you start working on a new album?
Page: It’s all music really and it’s not rocket science. So many bands are so confused, as far as I’m concerned, because I think they’re kind of concerned with people’s response instead of being concerned with playing and writing music…
It’s been frustrating when, as you say, critics want to say we invented nu-metal. I’ve heard nu-metal and I don’t hear any resemblance to us whatsoever…
It’s thematic writing. I mean, I sit down, and the examples that you might know, like “Unsung.” “Unsung” is a two note riff. There’s rhythmic displacement in the riff. I heard the riff in my head and I laid it down against a drum beat. Two notes. With a tag. Exactly the way Beethoven would write the 5th Symphony, which is the best heavy metal riff ever. We’ll call Beethoven nu-metal!
… It’s not about trying to be part of something. It’s just about the musical language. And that’s what music and songwriting and composing is.
… I still write these pissed off, solid things that work really well in the context of Helmet. I haven’t written a love song yet.
Q. So Helmet will be in town as part of Riot Fest for a show on Friday (October 5, 2011) at Double Door...
Page: I love Chicago. Chicago has always been a great music town and we play there every tour at least a couple times. Double Door has kind of become our new place. I love the people there. They treat you great. They’re pro. And it’s a great neighborhood. You can walk around the corner and get really good pizza. Actually, I went to get pizza around the corner one time and I heard this song and I said “These guys got their Helmet rip off down!” And I started singing and I was like “Oh. Yeah. Right. Ok. That’s us!” I was like “That’s weird.” And it wasn’t like one of the songs from Meantime or Betty, or whatever, it was a song off Size Matters which was cool. So, I think Chicago has always been a great music town and its always sort of marched to its own beat which I appreciate. I feel like it’s less trendy or less clicky then even places like Minneapolis and certainly New York. So, it’s good. We always look forward to going there. I’m gonna try to not get really drunk this time. That’s my goal! We’re stoked. We’re really looking forward to it.
This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan.
What started in 2005 as Chicago's premier punk festival has actually spread its wings in 2011 (with a little help from its first ever corporate sponsor, Red Bull, no doubt) with a condensed Riot Fest East having taken place in Philadelphia on September 24th.
Riot Fest Chicago takes place at venues throughout the city like the Congress Theatre, Bottom Lounge, Double Door, Cobra Lounge and more between Wednesday, October 5th and Sunday, October 9th (with headlining sets by Social Distortion, Danzig, Descendents, X, Helmet, Weezer (performing the Blue Album in its entirety), Smoking Popes, Urge Overkill and many, many more. Several different festival passes (as well as tickets to individual shows... several of which are already sold out) are available. Visit RiotFest.org for more details.